The Importance Of Absence: An Investigation Into The Significance Of Resilience In Retention On Higher Education Courses In A Further Education College

Nelson, Elspeth (2021). The Importance Of Absence: An Investigation Into The Significance Of Resilience In Retention On Higher Education Courses In A Further Education College. EdD thesis The Open University.



This study explores the experiences of former students in Higher Education (HE) within one college and staff in three general further education (GFE) colleges. The focus of the research is one of the GFE colleges, known as ‘Northsall’ College, where 17 per cent of HE students withdrew from their programmes before completion (Northsall MIS, 2013-14, Appendix 1).

The number of individuals who leave a degree course before completion is measured by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA). Retention rates are performance indicators for higher education providers, so if attrition rates are high, then education providers need to understand why in order to retain more students. One way to improve retention is for educators and students to understand and develop the concept of resilience. This is especially important because of the Government policy of widening participation (WP) where non-traditional students may require added support. The challenge of retaining students on their higher education in further education (HE in FE) programme led to the research title: ‘An investigation into the significance of resilience in retention on Higher Education courses in a Further Education College’.

The inter-dependent issues affecting student resilience and retention are grouped into three overarching themes. First, factors individual to the student such as personal resilience, which can be difficult to define and therefore subject to misuse. Second, institutional factors, such as student experiences of teaching and learning. Third, the policy context, which includes the neoliberal ‘marketisation’ policy and how it may impact on student expectations and resilience. Students as consumers, especially those referred to as widening participation, are often the least powerful and least well-equipped influencers of college policy. The research adopted an interpretive method of enquiry and qualitative data was collected by semi structured interviews with ten students who had left Northsall College before completing their study. Interviews were also conducted with three members of teaching staff at Northsall and three ‘Student Services Officers’ (SSOs), one from Northsall and two from other local colleges.

The findings suggest that students’ ability to be resilient against the stressors they may encounter can be affected by personal or course issues which affect one or more domains of their life, like weights on a traditional balance scale (Bergmann et al. 2019: 1). Student relationships with tutors and staff at Northsall College can be an important source of resilience support to students who are vulnerable to dropping out and are often an unlikely antidote to quasi marketisation measures (Allan et al., 2014). Unfortunately, staff support can be variable, often because of the marketisation of college priorities. (Tomlinson, 2014).

The research recommends the use of a resilience ‘tool kit’ to identify and support HE in FE students at risk of dropping out. Group discussion of the term ‘resilience’ is also suggested to inform and empower students about their own resilience. The use of student services officers (SSO) as an intermediary in conducting research into students who have left and as someone who could step in and support student resilience, when tutors are unavailable, is also a recommendation. Finally, further research is suggested into the experiences of students who may be at risk of dropping out of their higher education programmes in further education colleges.

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